Jazz As Critique
Adorno and Black Expression Revisited
Fumi Okiji




In Mississippi, 1955, after reportedly flirting with a white woman, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched. Through her refusal to mask the disfigured face of her murdered son, Mamie Bradley brought to the fore of American national consciousness the enduring problem of black dehumanization. All of Till’s features had been removed or obscured by the attack and the three days he had spent tied to a cotton gin in the Tallahatchie River. In what were the opening stages of the civil rights era, the brutality visited on this adolescent touched a nerve in a way similar injustices had failed to a decade before. It is telling that in their exploration of the case, Davis Houck and Matthew Grind speak of how the publication in the press of a “holiday picture” was seen at the time as helping to “humaniz[e] the Tills.”1 The word leaps from the page, taking on much more meaning than the authors intended. Humanize. The defense counsel parlance strains under the weight of the particulars of the case, the disfigurement readers are forced to contemplate, and, of course, the history of New World enslavement. In contrast to Till’s wolf whistle—the alleged trigger of the attack—the smiling geniality of the holiday photo is a sanctioned mode of black expression. The scandal of that brazen-faced masculinity is corrected by an artless smile in its Sunday best. Bradley’s act of disclosure showed the ideology behind such facades of congeniality. The surrender of humanity required of black excursion into social spaces is captured in the image of a corpse that lacks a death mask, an absence reflecting the “afterlife” of slavery. The unyielding impossibility of expressing the horror it had experienced made the nonface a symbol of the ill-fated birth of a community. Till’s death is an emblem of the predicament born of mass dehumanization that is the heart of black modernity and the expression to which it gives rise.

There is a moment in Theodor Adorno’s infamous essay “On Jazz” that forces me to reconsider my dismissal of it as an ignorant impertinence—an unfortunate smell that has me holding my nose as I devour less problematic areas of the theorist’s rich corpus. That the principles of structuration in jazz work exceeded his understanding is undeniable. More damning is his near-silence on African American and, more generally, black sociohistory. This is excruciating. Yet a claim made in passing hints at an inadvertent insight into a more faithful (and perhaps, more fruitful) rendition of the relation of blackness to the mainstream: “Perhaps, oppressed peoples could be said to be especially well-prepared for jazz. To some extent, they demonstrate for the not yet adequately mutilated liberals the mechanism of identification with their own oppression.”2 On the face of it the predicament of New World slavery appears to play out in advance the alienation and neutering of the bourgeois subject of the most recent past century and a half. Of course, the relation is closer to metaphor than historical preview. And on further reflection the metaphor is a bad one, as the relation between blackness and the human is often one of disjunctive intimacy. At a minor second interval from one another, they are discordant and too close to be effective allegory. Adorno’s preoccupation with the individual belongs to an intellectual “history that excludes [black people] . . . from even the shared experience of fragmentation.”3

It is both a testament to the persuasion of the ideology of individuality and damning evidence of the poor standing of black discontent within scholarly discourse that literature on jazz has tended to assume it to be in service of that “shared experience of fragmentation” from which black America and its colonial compatriots are routinely barred. Commentators throughout its history have seen jazz as music of the individual. It has been portrayed as a conduit of unhampered human essence and as a mirror of an idealized democratic society. But for Adorno, in the context of the actual isolation and lack of freedom that individuals encounter in modern life, this acclaim leaves the music open to the charges of complicity and regression. If we accept these accounts from jazz commentary, then we also need to take seriously Adorno’s objections concerning the music. But I do not believe these are the only or the most pertinent narratives. The insufficient engagement from the vantage of black subjectivity in jazz commentary is a lack that Adorno takes on without reflection. The omission undermines his critique. If an inquiry into how “the individual” features within this community in light of a history of systematic dehumanization had been made, Adorno would have found that black expression cannot be understood solely (or primarily) against the backdrop of the tragedy of the bourgeoisie. African American expression is neither an affirmation of personal autonomy nor a reluctance to relinquish a faded and now-defunct social category of a bygone era. Rather, it is a facet of a life that cannot help but be a critical reflection on the integrity of the world.


Adorno’s concern over individuals’ loss of autonomy in the era of monopolistic capitalism impels his efforts to expose the unscrupulous underbelly of the culture industry. In Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life—which reads as part autopsy, part eyewitness testimony chronicling the demise of the “old bourgeois class”—Adorno tells us of the brave new world in which “each statement, each piece of news, each thought has been pre-formed by the centres of the culture industry. Whatever lacks the familiar trace of such pre-formation lacks credibility.”4 This is clearly a milieu hostile to independent, unsolicited intervention of socially engaged individuals. At the height of bourgeois liberalism the family was the primary source of values for an individual. “Ego-autonomy,” which was nurtured within the patriarchal setting, held the possibility of individuals developing alternative ways of living and relating to others. The resolved Oedipus complex shows the emergent ego of an individual to conform in large part with the values and opinions that it spent some of its formative period reacting against. The rebellion involved in this development is crucial, however, to securing the tools necessary for effective agitation of societal values at risk of entrenchment.

With the growth of monopolizing business and corporations, and the accompanying power exercised by the state, this freedom became increasingly tenuous. The economic autonomy that the bourgeoisie had under market capitalism dissipates, undermining its stewardship over the ego development of the nascent generation. In the new “fatherless” society the collective psyche is primed for manipulation. The ill-formed ego provides little resistance to the culture industry. The decline of the bourgeoisie that is linked to the rise of the new anonymous order, in which capital becomes increasingly centralized, renders class division redundant. In this precarious environment, in which the family has lost its role as protector, a beleaguered universal class welcomes the reawakening of its underattended superego—fascist despots and the culture industry supplant the patriarch, who no longer possesses the necessary moral authority.5 As György Márkus tells it, “The culture industry largely takes over the function of the socialization of individuals, imbuing them at all levels of their psychological constitution with common patterns of reality-interpretation and behavior, making them thereby unresisting executers of the required functions of an encompassing system of impersonal domination.” He continues, quoting Adorno: “It is ‘the social cement,’ ‘the glue which still keeps together commodity society today, after it has already been condemned economically.’ For ‘the need that might have somehow resisted central control is already repressed by the control of individual consciousness.’6

The compulsion to conform is in direct conflict with the ability to become an individual and nurture empathetic relationships with others. In “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” Adorno sketches a situation in which followers identify with “an omnipotent and unbridled father figure, by far transcending the individual father and therewith apt to be enlarged into a ‘group ego.’7 Hostility toward minority groups is one consequence of this, and by the very fact of being part of the “group ego,” the follower is superior to those who are not. A person values him- or herself to the extent that he or she is a member of the group that grants admittance only to those who buy into the fiction of that group’s superiority. Any “interaction” is shown to be in service of the dominating forces, which punish nonconformity with expulsion from the “in-group.” In these more recent permutations of capitalism, “people are really atomized and separated from each other by an unbridgeable chasm,” and their interaction “issue[s] neither from their free will nor from their instincts but from social and economic laws which prevail over their heads.”8 This is the background against which we must read Adorno’s encounter with jazz.


Jazz is often presented as music of the individual.9 Its improvisational character is given as evidence of the independence of its musicians. It is also hailed as the bearer of a democratic spirit that is manifest in its inclusiveness, its musical miscegenation, and its rejection of the composer-performer division of labor we find in the modern European tradition. Moreover, its spirit of spontaneity, and what appears as an unadulterated expression of life, acts as an antidote to the self-alienation experienced in most other areas of modern existence. Narratives of the individual have featured in jazz studies from early in its history. The proto–jazz studies contributions of Hugues Panassié and Robert Goffin—contemporaries of Adorno—present the notion that jazz was a remedy to the degradation inflicted on people by capitalism and the acute rationalization underpinning that malevolent system.

Alongside, and often interlaced with, the undeniably astute critical insight was a quasi-religious enthusiasm that, at times, revealed casual racism.10 Goffin in 1934, with particular evangelical fervor, enthuses: “Oh you musicians of my life, prophets of my youth, splendid Negroes informed with fire, how shall I ever express my love for your saxophones writhing like orchids, your blazing trombones with their hairpin vents, your voices fragrant with all the breezes of home remembered and the breath of the bayous, your rhythm as inexorable as tom-toms beating in an African nostalgia!”11 There can be little doubt that such writing fed into established imagery and imaginings that keep black heterogeneity manageably narrow. The portrayal of musicians such as Louis Armstrong as “simple, naive [and] jovial” mediums who were mere physicality—sweating like heavyweights and “foam[ing] at the mouth” while waving a white handkerchief of surrender/submission—strays too close to “Sambo,” the perennial of minstrelsy and a category that helps govern black incursions into mainstream space.12 So it is with caution that I argue that Panassié and Goffin’s encounter with jazz needs to be retraced beyond the veneer of “noble savage” racism to their belief that the music had the potential to reawaken human qualities degraded by the unchecked rationalization of life.

Jazz, interpreted as a manifestation of freedom from intellectualized approaches to creative expression, is understood by the primitivists to come from a people with direct access to a primal human essence all but lost by their European counterparts. Rather than the insidious calculation of the tradition with which these writers are most familiar, jazz represents an alternative, drawing from resources that evade the suffusive instrumentality of human capability. Jazz musicians were viewed by these scholars as conduits to a reservoir of the “spontaneous urge of a whole people.”13 Revered as a prophet, the jazz musician was called on to demonstrate to the European modern a means of escaping the perils of civilization and of reuniting with its essential being. Panassié and others of this school were driven by a desire to turn from Western society’s hothouse rationality and its scientification of life toward a more elemental state. In their writing, jazz appears abstracted from a black sociohistorical context to serve the needs of a spiritually bankrupt European bourgeoisie. Their at times quasi-evangelical tracts offered this audience a particular response to a bourgeois predicament and had little, if anything, to do with a black experience of modernity. For the primitivists, jazz represented a route of return to a pre-Enlightenment European sensibility.

The enduring narrative of individuality in jazz sees the music as the mirror of an idealized American society—one founded on the sovereignty of the individual but respectful of the need for concessions that allow for a pragmatic democracy. Indeed, bolstered by the fact of its black origins, jazz was weaponized by the State Department to play a significant role in the promotion of the United States as the foremost proprietor of human rights. On the Cold War–era international radio show Voice of America Jazz Hour, Willis Conover impressed on his listeners the democratic foundations of jazz: “Only in such a society—and ours is the best example I know—could jazz have developed. It has its own musical restrictions—tempo, key, chord structure. But within them the artist is free to weave infinite variations. Structurally, it’s a democratic music. People from other countries, in other political situation[s], detect this element of freedom in jazz. There isn’t any elaborate reasoning process involved. They can feel it—emotionally. They love jazz because they love freedom.”14

In a similar vein, more recently, critic Gary Giddins writes, with arresting conviction: “The one truth about jazz of which I am certain is that it incarnates liberty, often with a perversely proud intransigence, merging with everything and borrowing anything, yet ultimately riding alone.”15 In such accounts jazz is presented as an expressive form founded on an ethos of tolerance, synthesizing difference into a cohesive whole but somehow managing to “ultimately rid[e] alone.” The music solves the conundrum of how to go about encouraging self-reliance while supporting the communitarianism necessary for a functioning democratic society. In contrast to primitivists’ staging of jazz as redemptive—a conduit to a prerational, intuitive essence—the dominant portrait of individualism in jazz shows the music to be reflective of American liberal democracy.16 For the primitivist, jazz presented a course of spiritualized action, a way that decadent modern Europeans, through immersion in the experience of a jazz performance, could be cleansed. Jazz-as-democracy employs the music as evidence of American moral superiority.

For John A. Kouwenhoven, in jazz “the thing that holds [musicians] together is the thing they are all so busy flouting: the fundamental four-four beat.”17 The music is at its best when “each player seems to be—and has the sense of being—on his own. Each goes his own way, inventing rhythmic and melodic patterns that, superficially, seem to have . . . little relevance to one another . . . yet the outcome is a dazzlingly precise creative unity. . . . Jazz is the first art form to give full expression to [Ralph Waldo] Emerson’s ideal of a union which is perfect only ‘when all the uniters are isolated.’18 In a similar vein Ralph Ellison understood genuine jazz to be “an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition.”19 This description of the music speaks to a tension at the heart of the United States’ founding documents—the crux of the ideal of America: how to maintain a common good while encouraging the self-reliance of a nation of individuals. Yet black America, while contributing to “democratic symbolic action,” by way of its expression in jazz, poses a direct challenge to the understanding of the terms America, freedom, and democracy. For Emerson the situation of the black modern exemplified how these terms had come to represent a reality diametrically opposed to them.20 He poured scorn on the interpretative contortions that proslavery advocates performed in order to uphold the Declaration of Independence and retain the institution of slavery.21

Ellison, perhaps more essentially, draws attention to the seeming incongruity of being black and human/individual. He laments that the black American, “a most complex example of Western man,” is most often drawn in mainstream representations as an “oversimplified clown.” The complexities and contradictions that make for compelling characterization are denied. The very idea of a black man or woman embodying “complexity and minuteness of differentiations” (Dewey) poses a challenge to the conventional truths that structure and continue to uphold modern society.22 What is most striking here is the contradiction between black expression (jazz) being a bearer of the liberal democratic ideal and black life being considered devoid of human quality. Within the general social field, black humanity is an aberration, a contradiction in terms. And genuine expression emerging from such life—particularly a practice hinged on idiosyncratic, distinctive response, such as jazz—should not be possible. This contradiction is not an irregularity but rather a peculiarity of black (American) subject formation.

Anticipating discussions that will follow in subsequent chapters, I suggest here that jazz cannot be adequately understood through a reading that sees the individual soloist fully liberated within the confines of predetermined rules and expectations nor through one that portrays a group of “isolated” individuals who merely inhabit the same space and miraculously turn out “coherent” work. The democracy narrative recognizes a collective in jazz but misconstrues the complex, contradictory, irresolvable relationships as a harmonious resolution to do what one wants, so long as one is tolerant. Kouwenhoven and Giddins are as deaf to the clanging contradictions of coupling jazz with liberty as elected upholders of the Constitution were as they voted in the Fugitive Slave Act. It is this persistent theme in jazz commentary concerning the reconciliation of a supposedly free individual and a benevolent society that Adorno finds so hard to swallow. To be clear: it is not the fact that jazz insufficiently models individual freedom that bothers Adorno. Rather, what troubles him is, as he sees it, parasitic propaganda asserting that such self-determination is a possibility in modern/contemporary life.


1. Davis W. Houck and Matthew A. Grind, Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 20.

2. Theodor W. Adorno, “On Jazz,” trans. Jamie Owen Daniel, Discourse 12, no. 1 (1989–90): 67.

3. Craig Hansen Werner, Playing the Changes: From Afro-Modernism to the Jazz Impulse (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 191.

4. Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London: Verso, 2005), 108.

5. Traditional class divisions no longer held as the working class and the bourgeoisie became amalgamated, corrupting and eventually rendering superfluous class consciousness. This, in part, explains Adorno’s focus on consumption and the culture industry rather than production. But see Jamie Owen Daniel’s (2001) essay “Achieving Subjectlessness: Reassessing the Politics of Adorno’s Subject of Modernity” for an interrogation of this (http://clogic.eserver.org/3-1&2/daniel.html).

6. György Márkus, “Adorno and Mass Culture: Autonomous Art Against the Culture Industry,” Thesis Eleven 86, no. 1 (2006): 76.

7. Theodor W. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 2001), 139.

8. Deborah Cook, The Culture Industry Revisited: Theodor W. Adorno on Mass Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), 9. Cook is quoting from the original German text: Theodor W. Adorno, “Die revidierte Psychoanalyse,” in Soziologische Schriften I (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972), 35–36.

9. “Jazz Is America” was the title of an essay by critic Marshall Stearns that appeared in the program for the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival.

10. In a much-needed reappraisal of Panassié’s legacy, Tom Perchard has suggested that the emotive, first-person prose can be read as an attempt to present the music in terms that more usefully reflect the ways in which the music eludes traditional music analysis. See Tom Perchard, “Tradition, Modernity and the Supernatural Swing: Re-reading Primitivism in Hugues Panassié’s Writing on Jazz,” Popular Music 30, no. 1 (2011): 25–45.

11. Robert Goffin, “The Best Negro Jazz Orchestras,” in Beckett in Black and Red: The Translations for Nancy Cunard’s “Negro” (1934), ed. Alan Warren Friedman (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000), 5. David Stein’s essay “Negotiating Primitivist Modernisms: Louis Armstrong, Robert Goffin, and the Transatlantic Jazz Debate,” European Journal of American Studies 6, no. 2 (2011): 1–15, is interesting, not only in its showing how Goffin edited Armstrong’s memoir to fit how the musician appears in the writer’s imagination but also for showing the equivocal nature of the black vernacular.

12. Goffin, “Best Negro Jazz Orchestras,” 5–6.

13. Hugues Panassié, Hot Jazz (London: Cassell, 1936), 7.

14. Willis Conover quoted in Iain Anderson, This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 43.

15. Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz: The First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 8.

16. Goffin also recognizes a “democratic spirit” in jazz and seems to suggest that jazz has preempted political and social developments. In Jazz: From the Congo to the Metropolitan, trans. Walter Schaap and Leonard Feather (1944; Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 1975), he writes: “The history of jazz has a social significance of which I am quite aware and which I am fond of stressing. At the very moment when America goes to war to defend the democratic spirit against the totalitarian challenge, it is fitting to remember that, in the last twenty years, jazz has done more to bring blacks and whites together than three amendments to the Constitution have done in seventy-five” (1).

17. John A. Kouwenhoven, Made in America: The Arts in Modern Civilization (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1948), 264. Also, in the program for the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, Rep. Frank Thompson Jr. writes: “The way jazz works is exactly the way a democracy works. In democracy, we have complete freedom within a previously and mutually agreed upon framework of laws; in jazz, there is complete freedom within a previously and mutually agreed upon framework of tempo, key, and harmonic progression.” Scott Saul, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 15.

18. John A. Kouwenhoven, “What’s ‘American’ About America,” in The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, ed. Robert G. O’Meally (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 28. The Cold War rhetoric is strong, with Kouwenhoven defending capitalist industrial work that is set “in contrast with Charlie Chaplin’s wonderful but wild fantasy of the assembly line” (134). The emphasis on the supposed isolation of musicians is also made by Marshall Stearns, who, quoting a German jazz fan, wrote that a “jam-session is a miniature democracy: every instrument is on its own and equal. The binding element is toleration and consideration for the other players.” Marshall Stearns, Altoona (PA) Tribune, August 10, 1956, www.newspapers.com/newspage/57846467/.

19. Ralph Ellison, “The Charlie Christian Story,” in Shadow and Act (New York: Vintage International, 1995), 234. The “assertion within and against the group” that Ellison writes about can be read as both (1) the intramural struggle for difference—that is, the tussle within the jazz ensemble or within the black community for distinction (which needs to be understood as also outward-facing, speaking to the extramural audience—“we too can be differentiated and complex”) and (2) the tension between the black community and the American mainstream.

20. See the lead chapter in Michael Magee, Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004).

21. Ibid., 3.

22. John Dewey, “The Live Creature and ‘Ethereal Things,’” in The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925–1953, ed. Jo Ann Boydston, vol. 10: 1934, Art as Experience (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), 29.